This Jersey For Sale

The WNBA opened its season this weekend. Yes, the same weekend that the NHL and NBA finals are continuing, that Tiger Woods is playing at the Memorial Tournament, and that jockey Calvin Borel fell just short in his attempt to complete a historic triple crown. 

So thanks largely to horrific timing, the opening weekend of the struggling women’s basketball league will receive about as much media coverage as my son’s kindergarten soccer game.

(Our team lost, but I think it should be mentioned that there was some controversy, as the other team had a first-grader on their squad. I know he was in first grade because he said so, although his handlebar mustache was also a clue to his advanced age.)

But something interesting and potentially revolutionary in American sports is afoot in the WNBA. Both the Phoenix Mercury and the Los Angeles Sparks have reached deals with corporate sponsors (LifeLock and Farmers Insurance, respectively) that have resulted in company logos appearing on both their road and home uniforms. 

While some might retch at the notion of jerseys with corporate logos as a corporate sellout, to anyone who’s ever watched even a few seconds of NASCAR, where the drivers have more logos on their racing suits than Donald Driver’s had contract negotiations, this might not seem like such a big deal.

And that’s exactly right. This is not a big deal. In fact, I can’t believe it’s taken this long.

When I go the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel‘s Web site, I’m met with a picture of Packers head coach Mike McCarthy shilling for a local heating and cooling company. When I watch sporting events on TV, I can see any number of athletes being paid handsomely to endorse products, from LeBron James selling car insurance to LaDainian Tomlinson selling TVs to Peyton Manning selling pretty much everything.

Would it really be such a shock to the system to see Aaron Rodgers drop back in the pocket with a Mountain Dew Throwback logo across his chest? Would anyone lose interest in the Milwaukee Brewers if Ryan Braun sported a picture of Colonel Sanders on his batting helmet?

Has the fact that Tiger Woods never steps on the golf course without wearing Nike apparel hurt his popularity or his TV ratings? Of course not.

For those who think that teams in the WNBA are taking these measures because they’re struggling teams in a struggling league in a struggling economy, they’re right. But they’re wrong if they believe that sponsors’ logos will never grace the jerseys of players in more established leagues like the NFL, NBA, or Major League Baseball. In this economy and beyond, owners will always be looking for new ways to make money, largely because they continue to insist on signing even mediocre players to multi-multi-million dollar deals.

Just this week, the Green Bay Packers said that they were looking into the possibility of selling sponsorship patches on players’ practice uniforms. Although the NFL now prohibits such ad placement on game jerseys, can that really be so far behind? Surely you’ll see the Detroit Lions making room for a Sony logo on their jerseys before you see them making room for a Vince Lombardi Trophy at their headquarters.

These days, consumers are getting savvier about ignoring advertisements. So advertisers are finding ways to outsmart them. Television shows such as Survivor, with contestants being rewarded everything from Charmin toilet paper to Pringles, and 90210, with its not-so-subtle references to Dr. Pepper (“Drinking Dr. Pepper is what a road trip is all about!”) are taking product placement to new and ever-more visible heights.

So-called sponsorship patches or logo jerseys are a logical step for advertisers looking to reach the humongous and typically very demographically desirable (i.e. young males who may not watch a lot else on TV) sports audience.  

Are there potential pitfalls to teams literally selling the shirts off their backs and creating an unprecedented and unmistakable connection between athlete and sponsor? Of course. Let’s say the NFL gave the OK last year for logos on game jerseys and the Minnesota Vikings signed a five-year deal with Purina Dog Food to wear Purina patches on their uniforms. That would probably put a damper on any thoughts of them pursuing the newly-freed Michael Vick. Now whether you believe that Vick deserves another chance in the NFL or not, certainly a corporate sponsor shouldn’t be the deciding factor in that personnel decision.

Or let’s say that one of the bench players on the Los Angeles Sparks gets involved in some embarrassing personal situation, like an Internet sex tape. Is it so unbelievable that someone from Farmers Insurance could make it known to team ownership that they’d just as soon not see that player put into games?

Nowadays everything in sports and sports media is for sale. We go to Miller Park, we watch the Tostitos Fiesta Bowl, and we listen to Peter Gammons talk to ESPN’s Mike and Mike in the Morning on something awkwardly christened the Subway Fresh Take Hot Line. And while some may grumble, the commercialization of sports will never be able to dampen the excitement of a no-hitter, a triple-double, a game-winning field goal, or a meaningful game between historic rivals.

When Steelers linebacker James Harrison returned that Kurt Warner interception for a touchdown in this year’s Super Bowl for the longest play in Super Bowl history, would the play have been any less memorable if he had been wearing a Michelin Man on his jersey? 

Or if Brett Favre went to the Minnesota Vikings, would Packers fans hate him more if his purple jersey was affixed with a Starbucks logo?


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